Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7
We are already up to week 3 in our sermon series known as Christmas Gifting. Today we lit the candle of joy in our Advent wreath. Our scriptures read for us all evolve around this idea of joy. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always. He says it multiple times. Yet while writing this letter, Paul was sitting in a Roman prison. He was uncertain of his future and it is believed shortly after he was executed. He had been flogged, imprisoned, excommunicated from his place of honor among the Pharisees – yet he speaks of rejoicing always. How can someone rejoice when all appears to be lost?
I wonder as we approach the season of Christmas, how often do we lack joy in the busyness and bustle? How often do we just sing those words with the popular Christmas song, “…and Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!” We feel the pressure even as we get to the wrapping phase of gifting. It seems we strive for absolute perfection when it comes to wrapping our presents, which in turn take the recipients only seconds to rip apart! We look for matching paper and cards, ribbons, tags, and of course the always perfect bows. We want the appreciation for our gift to exist during the time of anticipation – when boxes are shaken to guess what’s inside. And invariably at some point during the wrapping process we run out of tape, or paper, or tags and we have to make do. On more than one occasion we have resorted to duct tape when all else fails!! I remember resorting to plastic grocery bags in a moment of desperation! I always knew when my parents got to the end of their wrapping process because the gifts were then wrapped in comics from the newspaper! We know for a fact that our gifts are judged by the wrappings which surround them.
The gift wrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar entity, with an estimated $2.6 billion being spent annually, a vast majority of which earnings occur during the Christmas season [Source: www.wikipedia.com.] It is particularly important to get the wrapping right if you attend one of those holiday parties where the gifts are passed around and stolen until they reach a limit – you know the game I’m talking about. We tend to judge the gift, not just by size and shape, but by the wrapping.
We also judge by the skill of the wrapper. There are various ways to tackle the gift wrapping process. Some will take precise care to cut the exact amount of paper needed, square off every corner, trim and tuck all edges, and end with a present wrapped something like this. I admit others, including my husband, are much better gift wrappers than I am! I so loved it when gift bags became the popular thing! Oh, what a relief! Simply place the gift in the bag, add a little tissue paper and voila! I also love these pre-wrapped boxes – no muss no fuss! Once again, we worry about value – how much will our recipients value our gift? The value gage starts with the wrapping.
Sometimes we wear a wrapping of the person we want others to see in us, particularly during this time of year. We do not want others to see our angst or stress, our worry or even sorrow for some of us who are struggling to just get through the season of joy because we just don’t feel like celebrating. This is the hardest time of year for those who have lost loved ones or are struggling with finances, health, etc. Everyone is celebrating – parties, children’s concerts and gatherings are regular events all month long, yet we may find ourselves feeling more alone than ever. Yet our wrapping shows perfect corners, trimmed edges, and a pristine bow on top.
God presented us with a very special gift in an unusual package. Jesus, the savior of the world, entered this world as an outsider wrapped not in fine linen but in swaddling cloths. He quickly became a refugee, fleeing to Egypt until it was safe to return to Nazareth. Yet somehow in all this turmoil, the joy of the world shines through. Mary, the mother of Jesus, found joy at the announcement that she would be the one to carry Jesus in her womb. Mary found joy when even in the face of her uncertain future she helped to celebrate the birth of her cousin Elizabeth’s son, John. Mary found joy when the shepherds, the lowliest of the low, came to worship the newborn king. She even found joy when the Wise Men, traveling from the east, presented gifts predicting a prophesy of death for her son. Somehow in the midst of all these trials, Mary found joy.
Can we? Perhaps we need to take a moment and appreciate what we have. Perhaps we need to remember those who are struggling this year to find their joy. Perhaps we look beyond the ‘wrappings’ each of us present and realize that we are loved by Almighty God as the persons we are – broken, discouraged, angry at times but loved all the same. Maybe we take a step back and ponder the words of the beloved Christmas carols we sing every year. Perhaps we reread the ever-familiar account of a young couple and the imminent arrival of a newborn babe in an overcrowded city with no room or fanfare to celebrate this miraculous birth, but a stable and some animals. Perhaps we find joy in knowing Jesus is with us, even when we do not feel like celebrating.
Christmas is less than 2 weeks away. Many of us still have so much to do to prepare for the arrival of family and friends. We are so overwhelmed as we need to ensure the gifts purchased (and those that continue to be purchased) are wrapped, tagged, bagged and ready for transport and distribution. We may even be making multiple trips to the post office to mail packages to family we will not see at Christmas. Yet Jesus beckons us to the scene of the manger. Jesus beckons us to realize that it is not our birthday we are celebrating but his. Jesus beckons us to take a moment and reflect on our blessings, finding joy even when we may not feel so joyful.
This week is the last week for our Thursday prayer services. I will be focusing most on honoring and remembering those that have passed away. For me, my father died 30 years ago and not a Christmas goes by that I do not miss him. I’m hoping to have some special prayer stations set up to allow us the space to remember, grieve, yet feel God’s presence as well as the support from one another. Some will call this a Blue Christmas event which can be very meaningful and helpful to those who struggle during this time of year. Perhaps you feel this is too much of a downer – you don’t want to take the time because you’d rather feel happy and that just sounds like no fun at all. I get that. I also get that we are not insensitive beings but members of the body of Christ. We not only celebrate the good stuff but we support one another through the bad stuff. Consider taking the time to meditate on God’s most precious gift while taking the opportunity to remember loved ones who are no longer with us, and supporting your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Set up the wrapping station! Assemble the paper, tape, tags, ribbons, bows, scissors, pens! Maybe listen to a Christmas CD or movie while you work. But also pause and remember why we celebrate with gifts to one another. Remember why we are so involved in all the festivities this season has to offer. Remember the fact that everything changed with the birth of God’s son Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.